Category Archive: Ranking

The State of SEO: OODA Loop Implications

SEO and the OODA Loop

Understand & Make Money

Can you still make money with SEO?  Have Google’s latest actions driven the final nail in the coffin?  Or is there more opportunity than ever?

Read on, and find out.

Over the last two years, the pace of change in the SEO world has been fast and furious.  Internet marketers are giving up in droves as many of their sites are hit by penalties like Panda, Penguin, and the EMD update.  Cries that SEO is dead, particularly for small business, can be heard more than ever.

But it’s not SEO that’s dead, it’s the old ways of doing it that no longer work.  Things change.  They always have, and they always will.  Being able to adapt is key.  And if you can adapt as the competition gets slaughtered, there are more profits to be had than ever.

Here’s how you can use a concept developed by a military strategist to make sure you stay on top.

The OODA Loop

A colonel in the US Air Force, John Boyd developed the OODA Loop concept to apply to combat.  Make no mistake, there is a war going on between Google and the rest of us.  Naive or ill-informed SEOs may not realize this (at their own peril), but it nevertheless is true.

Webmasters want their sites to rank well in search results, and in the face of global competition for the top 10 spots, doing so requires understanding search engine algorithms and giving them what they want.  “Giving them what they want” is a nice way to say manipulating them.  Google doesn’t want to be manipulated.  They want to manipulate you.  The war is on.  And there is carnage.

Google and its foot soldiers (pandas, penguins, and untold others) are slaughtering websites and webmasters at a pace that’s pure crazy.  High quality sites and small businesses that get in the path of these maniacal beasts are acceptable collateral damage to Google’s war machine, and the government isn’t going to stop them.  We’re on our own, friends.

In the face of constant assaults by Google’s monsters, we must adapt in order to survive and prosper.  The OODA Loop provides a framework for doing so.

Observe – Orient – Decide – Act

OODA is an acronym for observe, orient, decide, and act.  In the face of change, we first observe the change.  It takes time to orient ourselves to the new reality.  Only after orienting ourselves to the new reality can we make a decision based on it.  And we can’t act until we decide how to do so, based on that new orientation.  The tricky part in this war against Google is that when Google is at the last phase of the OODA Loop, acting, they’ve forced us into the observation phase.  This leaves us 3 steps behind.

Let’s look at an example:

One day you’re walking along, doing just fine.  All of a sudden a panda jumps out and shoots you right in the face.  It’s rather shocking.  Most people do one of three things in such situations:

  • They fall down and die.
  • They freeze (in fear) right where they are, and the panda slaughters them or they bleed to death while frozen.
  • Since they’re not dead yet, their brains have them keep doing what they were doing…a natural survival response…which doesn’t work very well against deranged pandas and penguins.  They get slaughtered to, just a little bit later, as the panda runs behind them and shoots them several times in the back.

The Solution: Default Response

There’s one way to dramatically increase your chance of survival in the face of a vicious assault.  You need to have a default response.  A default response is an action that gets triggered by an aggressive action against you.  So when you get attacked, rather than getting stuck three steps behind and dying one way or another, you instantly act.  This action in the face of an attack forces the attacker into the observation phase, putting you instantly 3 steps ahead.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite so easy with Google, as we rely on our opponent’s monopoly position in search for our income.  And because Google is such a huge monopoly, our action isn’t really going to kick them back to the observation phase, with us instantly on top.  But in order to survive, you still need a default response.  You need to move to a safe fall-back position from which to observe, orient, decide, and act with good and effective strategy.

Fall-Back Position

It may take some time before you figure out why that panda shot you in the face.  You’re going to need medical supplies and a safe place to hide while you orient to this new reality and decide how to proceed.  And, once you decide to act, the game may continue to change in front of you.

This means you either need enough savings to hold you over, or additional income sources.  Those income sources can be other websites not slaughtered by Google, or businesses/jobs that don’t depend on SEO traffic for income.  Having both savings and multiple sources of income is, of course, ideal.  In this day and age, where SEOs are in a full-on war with Google, having only one income generating site and no savings is a recipe for painful death by one of Google’s soldiers.  It doesn’t matter how good your site is, or how many people love you.  Google doesn’t care.

From your safe fall-back position, it’s time to fully observe, orient, decide, and act.

Strategic Pause

Taking a strategic pause from active web development, giving yourself time to observe the new playing field and orient yourself to it, can be of huge benefit.  Look at sites that were hit vs. sites that weren’t hit.  What are the differences?  Look deeply into your analytics.  What date were you hit on?  Does that date correspond to a known/confirmed penalty date?  Were you hit only for certain keywords or pages, or were you hit across the board?  Once you move to your fall-back position, still in good condition due to your savings or additional sources of income, take whatever time you need to observe and orient as best you can.

See What Sticks

If you’ve attempted to observe and orient with little success, you may have to send out spies to get more intelligence.  Don’t risk your best assets.  Every serious SEO should strive to have a number of sites with different types of content (quality, quantity, text, video, static vs. interactive, etc.), different types of link building (quality, quantity, frequency, anchor text variety and distribution, etc.), and different traffic sources (search, paid, social, offline marketing, etc.).  Once you’ve got a network of sites, you can use them to test the waters.  Throw enough at the wall, and something will stick.  When you know what’s sticking, build on it.

A Time to Fight, A Time Not to Fight

Know that there is a time to fight, and a time not to fight.  If you come to the conclusion that a site, page, or method is dead, don’t fight it…move on.  This may require giving up on a site (it may come back in the future as algorithms change and penalties expire), moving content to a new domain and starting over fresh, or deleting pages with “bad” links pointing to them (allowing them to 404 so the bad links are killed off).

OODA Lag

It takes time to observe, orient, decide, and finally act based on that new information.  Many of your competitors will die right after the initial assault, without defaulting to a fall-back position with a plan.  There will be a vacuum, where sites rank with little effort, simply due to active webmasters being taken out.  If you’ve got a number of test sites or back-ups in the ready, you may be able to take advantage of this vacuum.  Due to the time lag, it may seem like nothing works.  But something will.  It just takes time to figure it out.  For those that do, there will be less competitors and more to gain, as web use still continues to grow year after year.

Google EMD Update: The Real Story

On Sept. 28th Google’s Matt Cutts tweeted to announce a “minor weather report” designed to reduce rank for low quality exact match domains (EMDs), later claiming it would only effect .6% of English US queries.  As has been typical recently, there’s a lot more to this story.

In April of this year, Google launched a Panda update on the 19th, a Penguin update on the 24th, and another Panda update on the 27th (timeline here).  In addition, other dials were turned during this period to increase rank for authority sites and tighten filters for anchor text over-optimization.  Previously, Google had been updating Panda on a monthly basis.  But more recently, updates and algorithm changes have been packed together, often with misleading announcements.  This so-called EMD Update was no exception.

Update Codename: Misdirection

On most popular SEO blogs and forums, people tend to attach themselves to whatever Matt Cutts announces, making it easy for Google to point right, throw a cookie in that direction, but then run left…while everyone is still looking the wrong way and missing the real story.  Look a bit deeper into the comments or follow up posts, and you’ll find a few people yelling…but that’s not what happened to my site.  These comments are usually followed by others who have taken Google’s bait, continuing the misdirection.

While there may have been an update that targeted “low quality” EMDs, there definitely was a massive across-the-board penalty that hit non-EMDs.  Here’s proof:

Google EMD Update

EMD Update Hitting Non-EMD Sites

Both of the above sites were long time small businesses in an e-commerce niche I follow, neither with EMDs.  (The screenshot is from Advanced Web Ranking.  The numbers on the left side of the columns are current rank.  The numbers on the right side are the positions lost or gained.  The change shown is between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1.)  Here’s another screenshot from an entirely different, non-commercial niche:

EMD Update

Codename: Misdirection

Again, neither of the above sites was an EMD and both have been around for nearly a decade.  I could post screenshot after screenshot, but they’d all look the same.

Speculation

This update, or something released around the same time, looks more like a Panda or Penguin style devaluation, and it clearly affected far more than .6% of queries.  Every query I track, and I track a lot of them, had sites that range from slightly devalued to decimated across-the-board.  It’s impossible to come to any definitive conclusions at this point in time, but to me this looks slightly more content related than link related.

Do you have a non-EMD site that was hit by the EMD update?  If so, let me know in the comments, along with any thoughts on the cause of the hit.  I’ll update this post or post again as soon as I have more information.

SEO Is King

My lasts few posts have focused on the pros and cons of various social networking strategies, from participation on popular social networks to blogging and email list building. But I’d like to take it back to the best method of online promotion there is: SEO.

Why SEO Beats Social Networking

First, a caveat. Social networking can and often should be a part of your SEO strategy. By networking in the right places and with the right people, you’ll get links, which is a big part of SEO. For the ultimate source of traffic and conversions however, SEO will beat social networking for most online businesses.

More Effort, Less Traffic

Social networking is primarily about connecting with people in your niche, and these days it’s most often done on networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Building a following on these networks takes time. And it takes continuous effort. It’s not something you can do and then forget, and it’s not something that’s generally smart to outsource.

For many sites and in many niches, a couple thousand visitors per day isn’t all that much. I’ve built mini sites in a couple of days that have pulled in 10K visitors/day without much effort. A 50K Twitter following would take far more effort. And it wouldn’t be a one time deal. It would require continuous work. Furthermore, those 50K followers aren’t following your site. They’re following your Twitter feed. If you post a link to your site, how many of them will actually go to your site? 5% maybe? If you’re lucky. And you can’t post links to your site every day without looking like you’re only there for self-promotion.

John Aguiar said in the comments on this post that at the time he made it, his 80,000 Twitter followers were sending him 500 to 1,000 visitors per day:

I dont know the 80,000 followers I have yet Twitter sends me 500 to 1000 visits a day to my blog.

Twitter is the best free tool you have to get traffic and build your brand.

Although he’s got 115K+ followers now, he’s following 67K people and looks to spend an incredible amount of time on Twitter.

Is the time it takes to build a massive Twitter following worth 1,000 visitors per day? Surely not if you compare it to SEO. I’ve built multiple sites in a couple of days, spent less than $1,000 on link building, done nothing else to promote them, and had them each bring in thousands of visitors per day. Compare spending less than a week in total on a site and getting many thousands of new/unique visits per day to spending a year building 80K Twitter followers that gets you 500 – 1,000 visitors per day. There’s really no comparison.

Visitor Intent

Your Twitter followers are always the same people, most of whom are using the social network to communicate with friends. With search based traffic on the other hand, every single visitor is actively searching for something you’re providing. Which do you think is more likely to convert and make you money?

You can’t beat search for bringing you visitors who are more likely to convert. They’ve gone to their computers, navigated to a search engine, and typed in a query looking for something in particular. When they click on your site, they’re going there to fulfill a need at that moment in time. If you’re selling a solution to that need or providing advertising that satisfies that need, your chances of making money from that visitor are relatively high.

Most people using social networks on the other hand are not looking to make a purchase. They’re looking to communicate with friends or see what people are up to. When you send them a link to your site, they’re far less likely to purchase something or click an ad, as they weren’t looking for what you’re giving them in the first place.

Less Effort, More Unique Visitors, & Higher Conversions

SEO beats social networking because it takes far less effort to build a larger stream of unique visitors who are searching for exactly what you are providing. For most businesses, SEO traffic is more likely to convert than social traffic too.

Again, I’m not implying you shouldn’t be doing any form of social networking. If you’ve got a great site, you probably should. But in most cases, if you know what you’re doing, SEO is going to lead to more traffic and more conversions…more money.

Why SEO Beats PPC

This is a tough one, and it’s not true as often as SEO vs. social networking. PPC is also searched-based, so visitor intent is high. And because the top PPC ads are displayed on top of the organic results, especially for commercial queries, you can get more traffic from PPC than SEO.

But there’s a cost, and it’s often prohibitively high.

Barriers to Entry & Prohibitive Bid Prices

SEO takes knowledge and experience. Most self proclaimed SEOs don’t know what they’re doing, so if you do you’ve got a serious advantage over the majority of your competition. The knowledge it takes to be a good SEO is a barrier to entry compared to PPC.

Anyone can start a PPC ad campaign. It only takes a few minutes. And many new entrants are inclined to try to get into the first 3 spots above the organic results, bidding the cost per click up above profitable levels. Most long time PPC marketers know that competitive phrases are generally priced so high that profit margins end up being very low or even negative.

While SEO is also extremely competitive, if you’ve got the knowledge, the cost of getting and staying at the top is usually lower. It’s true that ranking naturally takes more time than setting up a PPC campaign, and that with certain strategies your ranking is going to be less stable than what you can achieve with PPC. But there’s no guarantee that profits from PPC will remain stable in the face of competition that can bid up the cost per click.

SEO can bring you a large, constant stream of new visitors that’s nearly free once you’ve got a great site ranking at the top. PPC will always cost you, for every single visit.

Why Content Isn’t King

This one is easy. It’s not Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will not come. It doesn’t matter how awesome your site is. Without promoting it no one is every going to see it. Do a search for anything. You’ll find plenty sites in the top 10 that have poor content.

You can get a site with poor or mediocre content to rank in the top 10 through SEO, but you can’t get a site with great content to rank with no SEO. Great content will help you rank better because it will be easier to get links to a great site. People will be more likely to spread it. But great content alone is nothing.

Social networking and PPC both have their place, and content is indeed very important. But there can only be one king…and for traffic and conversions with maximized profits, it’s SEO.

The Brave New World of SEO

Bill Slawski recently posted on a newly granted Google patent designed to “modify” rank for sites Google thinks are “spamming”.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in SEO.  In short, the patent describes Google applying time delays, negative responses, random responses, and unexpected responses to the placement of pages in the search results when the algorithm determines there is a possibility of attempted manipulation.  If the “spammer” reacts to these responses in an observable way, the page or site can then be designated as spam.

Leaving aside the fact that all SEO is an attempt at manipulating or increasing the rank of a website/page in the search results, and that entirely legit businesses following Google’s guidelines will be wrongly labeled as spammers, this patent points toward a very important ramification of micro vs. macro SEO.

Micro SEO Is Dead

Many years ago, SEO was simple.  You added keywords to all the right places, got your links with the right keyword anchor text, monitored your rank, and adjusted your keywords and links accordingly.  Sometimes you’d cross a threshold and hit a filter by having your keyword repeated too many times either on your site or in your external links.  No big deal.  Remove a few instances or switch them to synonyms, add some new links to diversify the anchor text in your portfolio, and BAM, you’d be back in the game in no time.

Spending hours and hours drilling down into Advanced Link Manager data and analyzing exact-match-anchors-from-unique-linking-domains…worked.  It worked well.

Nothing Lasts Forever

But a few years ago this started to change.  Google began ranking pages based on the authority of a site rather than a particular page for example.  So you might find a page ranking well, analyze it, and find very few traditional ranking signals.  It was ranking based on site factors instead of page factors.  This complicated analysis a bit, but not THAT much.  If you understood it, you could still figure out what was going on.

It’s one example of micro-managing SEO getting more complex.  These days though, micro-managing SEO is more than complex.  It’s a recipe for failure.

Although Google may have recently been granted the rank-modifying spammers patent, these random fluctuations have been at play for a long time.  They were commonly known among SEOs with experience as growing pains.  Especially with new sites, attempts to move up in rank would cause random result placement for a while, which would eventually settle.  These time-based delays have been common for years, and if you didn’t know about them you could inadvertently screw yourself.  Inexperienced SEOs would get a handful of links and see a small upward movement or a small downward movement, not realizing the unexpected/inappropriate movement was influenced by a time delay, and push harder or make drastic changes.  This caused them to pass filter/penalty thresholds without realizing they had done so, and ended up causing their sites to drop into never-never land for a very long time, with little chance of redemption.

It also created situations where it was easy to spend more than you needed (in time or money) for link building.  For smart SEOs, knowing there was a sandbox or time delay allowed them to play the slow-and-steady game instead of moving too fast, crashing, and burning sites.

Historical/Temporal Data In Play

In addition to the above evolution of the algorithm, new penalties have been appearing for unnatural activity over time.  Link velocity matters.  Link spikes that appear unnatural (potentially because they lack other signals of natural spikes: mentions, traffic, etc.) can also cause penalties.  And link loss can be as bad as link spikes.

It hasn’t been in effect as long as the sandbox, newer time delays, and random ranking fluctuations, but more recently, attempts to fix losses began leading to even further losses.  This may be the result of the above patent being applied before being granted.  Here’s how it works:  A webmaster gets a bunch of links and his site moves down instead of up.  He freaks out and removes the links, thinking they were the cause of the drop.  They were the cause of the drop.  But removing them looks even more unnatural than getting them, especially if the removal can be tied to the rank loss in time.  If the webmaster would have tried to create additional signals or simply slowed down, he may have come back.  But by undoing what caused the drop, he confirms Google’s suspicion…and is now labeled a spammer with greater certainty.

Unreliability of Micro SEO

Google’s algorithm is a complex, constantly changing mix of numerous interrelated factors with variable thresholds and multiple layers.  It’s no longer possible to look at isolated data and arrive at actionable conclusions.  One site with 3,567 links may rank #1, while another site with 3,567 links may be completely removed from the results.  The distribution of links to an entire site can and does influence the rank of a single page on that site.  The anchor text profile (keyword vs. generic vs. brand vs. URL, etc.) matters.  The quality of the linking sites matters.  The diversity of linking sites matters.  The placement of a link on a page matters.  The rate of link acquisition and loss over time matters.  And all of these factors are interrelated, changing regularly, and different for different sites.  And there are many more factors!

If all of the above isn’t complex enough, add in purposely randomized results over randomized periods.

SEO is not deadBut micro SEO died a long time ago.  (Unfortunately there are still many people selling it.  But I’ll save that for another post.)  Due to the complexity of the algorithm, analyzing results on a micro level is a waste of time at best.  And at worst (ever more likely), it will create obvious patterns that Google will notice and penalize.

Macro SEO: The Way Forward

Each time Google rolls out a significant change or massive penalty, there are cries around the interwebs that SEO is dead.  The cries come from individuals whose current methodologies have died.  They don’t realize it’s not SEO that’s dead, but their particular micro tactics and strategies.  Macro SEO has always worked, and it will as long as there are search engines ranking sites without requiring payment for placement.

What Is Macro SEO?

Macro SEO is about understanding the big picture.  What types of sites are ranking?  How big or small are they?  Are they brands?  What does their link profile look like, overall?  What does their anchor text profile look like overall?  Are the search results for a given phrase or niche dominated by big brands?  Are they dominated by Google verticals?

Macro SEO requires you to look at the details only in order to understand the big picture.  When micro SEO worked, ranking reports could be run weekly and micro changes could be made as a result of ranking fluctuations.  With macro SEO, ranking reports are still extremely useful.  But instead of using them to make immediate adjustments, they’re used to notice when significant changes have occurred and in what direction those changes are pointing.

Applying macro SEO means using tactics that go with the current rather than against it, and not freaking out or reacting to unexpected ranking “modifications”.  But you need to feel the direction of the current first, along with understanding the general causes of major penalties, and that does take a combination of experience and analysis.  But it’s not micro analysis.

Knowing that Google is going to mess with you along the way, that you’re going to see random fluctuations and ranking drops, will help you stay on the macro path to success.  Expect a bumpy ride.  Otherwise, you’re going to be outing yourself as the “spammer” you’ve become in Google’s eyes.

301 Redirect vs. Google Penguin

In my post on the Google Penguin penalty and strategies for getting out, I mentioned that doing a 301 redirect to a new domain might work.  I also wrote: “I don’t see this as a long term solution”.  But you don’t know for sure unless you try.  Since I wanted to know for sure, I tried.  Here’s the result:

Google Penguin Escape Failure

Failed Escape!

The first graph shows a nice site moving along with normal weekly oscillations, until it gets cut down by a maniacal penguin.  Shortly after it got hit I purchased a brand new domain, uploaded the same content (different design but same text content/pages), and implemented a 301 redirect from the original site to the new domain.  After about a month the traffic was around 50% of the original site pre-Penguin.  Toward the end of July the traffic shot up to around 100% of the original site.  Then, after a spike, the Penguin dashed back in and cut it down again.

A Few Details

This was a totally legit, well researched, informative site, but rather small at less than 20 pages.  I hadn’t done much link building on the original site (but the link building was overly keyword focused), and only did 2 high quality guest posts for the new site, with generic anchor text.  It’s interesting that Google allowed this to work for 3 months before nailing it.  Was it another Penguin iteration?  I don’tthink so, as there wasn’t much talk on the web of other sites being hit, and I didn’t see such movement in the fairly large number of sites I watch.  Was it the case of Google all of a sudden nailing all 301 redirects for Penguin hit sites?  No.  I had two other Penguin hit sites 301′d to new domains (for shorter periods) and neither of them were hit again.

Some Thoughts

It looks to me, as I expected, that 301′s will only provide a temporary escape from Penguin.  Maybe you’ll get about 3 months out of jail.  Can you just do a chain of 301′s, one after another, to keep the money coming in?  It’s possible.  But if you’ve got a site that’s a real brand with real fans, this isn’t going to be an option.  You may also be burning the target domains.  (I’m testing this now…seeing what happens when the 301 is removed but the content stays on the target domain.)

It makes sense that Google would want to pass the penalty through a 301.  If they didn’t, spammers and genuine sites alike could do whatever they wanted, and simply 301 to a junk domain over and over again.

The best solutions are probably one or more of those I covered in my first Penguin post:

  1. Remove low quality links
  2. Delete pages with too many low quality links
  3. Split your site in to multiple sites
  4. Get more high quality, natural links

For me the verdict is in on redirecting a Penguin hit site to a new domain…it won’t work for long.

*Notice the spike in the graphs just before the Penguin hits.  I have no idea why there’s an unusual spike just before a site is nailed, but I’ve seen this before.

And An Unrelated Note

Aaron published an outstanding post over the weekend: Google Copyright Transparency Report.  I highly recommend reading it.  Google has demonstrated extreme carelessness with Panda and Penguin, destroying high quality, totally legit businesses and websites that did nothing illegal.  Many of these sites provided employment for multiple people, not to mention all their satisfied customers.  People who think Google can do no evil may come up with excuses for Panda and Penguin (which I’d strongly disagree with), but there is no excuse for what Aaron brings up in his post.  Google is punishing sites for copyright violations (not a bad idea on the face of it), but exempting themselves.  This is a bold, shit-in-your-face move, where they admit they’re going to punish small sites but exempt the biggest copyright thief in existence…Google.  Google steals and profits from copyrighted content left and right.  It’s a large part of their business model.  Yet, they’re announcing they’re going to punish others for doing what they do on an incredible scale.  Read the the post.  If you had any doubts about Google’s intentions, motivations, and duplicity, you no longer should.